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Interview: Peterson Toscano, Gay Christian activist

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Peterson Toscano is an American gay Christian activist and performer. That's an awful lot of labels. He's also an actor, a Quaker, a survivor of the 'Ex-Gay Movement', a comedian, a playwright and an actor, to add a few more. Personally, I just found him charming, smart and funny. And that's why I'll be going to see his show involving transgender readings of the Bible at a Christian festival in August.

His work and ideas are far from uncontroversial, but he believes it has the power to change the way even conservative minds understand some key passages in the Bible. Talking to Peterson about Pentecostalism, whether the Bible condemns homosexuality, talking to Focus on the Family, the most famous Ethiopian in Scripture and what he'd do if he were Pope, I suspect he might be right.

You used to be part of the Pentecostal church, where there's a great emphasis on showmanship and theatricality with a strong dedication to a core message. That's not a million miles from what you do now. Have you come back to your roots?

It's an excellent question. You know, I was trained to be a missionary at a Christian college and I wanted to travel in Europe in particular to spread good news. And really nothing has changed. Just the message has changed a little bit.

Do you still feel churches like that - apart from their take on things like homosexuality - have a core message that is valid?

Well I'm a Quaker now, so it's much quieter than the Pentecostal churches, but there's some interesting similarities with the Pentecostal tradition: Quakers try to listen to the leading of the Spirit as opposed to just being led by one's head or a book. There's some of that impromptu worship that happens and spontaneous sharing.

There was an interesting deconstruction of power in Pentecostal churches: often where there might be a minister who's in charge of stuff, but at different points people could get up and share and do things, which doesn't happen in Anglican churches and Evangelical churches in the same way. So I think my faith tradition is still very much like that, where it values the individuals as opposed to a classy system of clergy.

So, do you feel like people could still find God in a Pentecostal church, or would you encourage people to go to a church that is freer in terms of doctrine?

I can't do well in those churches anymore because it brings up trauma. But I can't deny that people find different traditions that work for them. We're wired differently . Last summer I was invited to present at the TransFaith Conference, a predominantly black and Latino Pentecostal transgender faith event in North Carolina.

That's fairly niche.

(Laughs) It is a very niche market we're talking about here. Yet, about 400 people showed up for this event. Blow-out Gospel music, very vibrant preaching, but these were all transgender and queer people of colour. I was one of the few white people among the group and one of the few non-trans people. And I did my play about transgender Bible characters, which I will do at Greenbelt. At the end of the show there was just weeping. I heard sobbing and weeping in the audience, because people heard their stories. And they are part of a faith tradition that has in some places not welcomed them. So they have had to find new spaces. But they don't want to leave their tradition. Or maybe they left a different tradition and they find a lot of freedom and expression in this pentecostal tradition.

So I think it's an individual matter, to answer your primary question. Should people stay? Should they go? I think they need to evaluate it for themselves, because people find spirit and faith in all sorts of venues. Someone from a Pentecostal background may do really well in an Anglican tradition, because it's a faith tradition that's dissimilar from what they grew up with. They can find something fresh and new without being retraumatised.

Doing plays about transgender Bible characters and some of the other stuff you do that is obviously going to be shocking to some conservatives, is there a danger that you're not going to be convincing the people who perhaps most need convincing? Or is your primary role to be a comfort to people who have perhaps been oppressed by the Church?

I have multiple audiences and multiple goals. So yeah there are people who've been oppressed who need to hear good news for themselves and need to counter these messages and find that they are really positive stories about gender-nonconforming people in the Scriptures. I also work with a lot of gay and lesbian people who are not completely on board around transgender issues, because within our own community there is oppression happening. And as a gay guy I feel I need to address that, just like as a white guy I need to address white privilege and racism. So I have a message to my own audience about justice.

Then there are people who are needing good news who are oppressive of other people and are unaware of what's in the text. And of course, if someone sees a flyer: "transgender in the Bible", it's shocking for them. But I have been in some very conservative spaces, including Eastern Mennonite University, and I actually use very traditional methods of Bible scholarship. I stick very close to the text. And although they may not like the conclusions I come to, they can't in any way fault my methods for doing it.

And I use storytelling. That is a very disarming and subversive way of doing theology. Because people listen to stories in a way that they don't listen to a traditional sermon.

One of the most exciting potential outworkings of your material for an Evangelical like me might be to almost reach out to gay people who had thought that Christianity, faith or God had nothing to offer them. Do you see a space for encouraging gay missionaries to the gay community?

It's not where my heart is at. I think often people are not treated like adults when it comes to faith. And a lot of evangelism methods are done in a way that is like speaking to children. And I think for particularly for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people, in regards to faith, it really is a matter of taking matters into your own hands and finding your own way. I don't want to encourage anyone in any particular way, other than to just be authentic about who they are.

For some people that literally means not ever going into a church. And that's the healthiest outcome for them. And for other people it's to truly embrace the identity of 'I am lesbian and a person of faith and both of these identities are very important to me and I'm not going to throw them in the closet or hide them under a bushel. I need to shine that.' And if I can model that for people, that's awesome. But i think the important thing is that people have been evangelised to death in many different ways. And I think people just need to have the opportunity to hear multiple stories and in so doing develop their own and grow in their own story.

Do you think there is good news for LGBT people in Christianity? Is there anything that it has to offer them that is special, that is good, that they could benefit from?

Well, in a good, healthy Christian community, there's that: there's community. There's companionship. Many people are single and it's hard to be single. To have a community of people that you can spend time with, that you can work on projects together with, people who can lean on each other when they have need - that's really what the early church was like. You look in the book of Acts and what was stunning about how they operated was that they were a big commune. They shared everything they had with each other. And that sort of living is essential for people who are disenfranchised and oppressed.

In the United States in many cities, almost 40% or more of the homeless youth population are lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender youth. They need a community where they are safe. And they're not safe in most homeless shelters because they're faith-based and anti-queer. I think it's a role of churches to be able to reach these marginalised communities who are not welcome in the mainstream. I think there is good news in that.

I also think that the Bible is a complicated text. People say 'what does the Bible say about this or that?' Well the Bible doesn't say anything. It's just a collection of ancient writings. We have to go to the text and interpret it with whatever tools we have. And in so doing we may find stories and models that give us hope, that show us that we've always existed, that there has been radical inclusion. And for some people that can be a very helpful thing, because they feel as if someone has been beating the shit out of them with this book. And to find that actually it's been misused: that could be very helpful, because some of their greatest loved-ones may have been using it to oppress them.

What would you say to people who have a different understanding from you about the Bible? What would you say to people who say that the Bible in some way denounces homosexuality?

Well, recently, I've been putting up a series of YouTube videos where I talk about very specific stories, like Sodom and Romans Chapter1.
And one thing I do with people is I try to ask questions, because people remember most what comes out of their own mouth. So for instance, I'll ask: what did the Ethiopian eunuch look like? What did this person sound like?

Let's talk about that, because in that text the writer goes out of his way to talk about what this person was like. In fact, the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter 8: there are more descriptors of who that person is than any other person in the Christian Scriptures other than Jesus.
And the writer went out of their way to let us know that they were a person of colour, who was a foreigner from Africa, who was a civil servant, a person of faith and who was a eunuch. Meaning that they were surgically altered, and gender-variant. Probably without facial hair, or body hair. They never went through puberty so they retained a high voice. If you looked at them you would be unclear if you were looking at a man or a woman. They were a sexual other. And going to the temple, as it says in the text they did, a highly gendered space where you have men and boys on one side and women and children on the other, where would this person go, who is not male nor female? And why is it so important that the writer included the detail that this was a eunuch?

And so suddenly we're not talking about me as a gay person and what's going up my bum or not, or whatever people get confused by. We're talking about a person in the text who is different from other people around them. And that gives them a model to see: well there were people in the Bible who don't fit, who may not be very welcomed in our churches today, but were radically welcomed in the text.

When you speak to conservatives and explain this stuff to them, do you ever get those 'lights going on' moments? Or is it pretty much an uphill battle?

It depends on venue. Obviously, if I'm doing this online in some sort of chat forum or comments, forget it. You just can't get very far. But I've sat down face to face with people from groups like Focus on the Family, and have had lots of conversations with pastors - closed door conversations - and they want good news. And I have had people definitely look at me and say: "I have never seen that before in my life. I have never noticed that before." And now they will never read that text the same way again. I use the tools that are meaningful to them. I use the text. I don't make up stuff about the Bible. I stick close to it. And so that helps them, because they need that.

If you were in charge - If you were the Pope or could be in charge of all the Christians...

(Laughs) Probably a bad idea..

I'm assuming under your reign there would be total equality for LGBT people. But what would you do with the dissenters? With people who didn't interpret Scripture like you? What would you do about them?

You're asking a Quaker a very hard question...

Hey, I'm not a Quaker, but I'll listen to you. So say I'm in that position, what should I do?

Um.. you know, I could never see myself in that, but let me try to work in the fake world that you've created for me...

I think what I would do is what I do now, when people talk about the Ex-Gay Movement, because that's part of my own history. I spent almost 20 years trying to de-gay myself.
So, when people say it's wrong to be gay and all of that, I will appeal to them from a pastoral care angle and say: okay, you have this opinion that you think it's wrong to be gay. I disagree with you, that is not what I interpret from reading the Bible. But what about how we then respond to people who are gay and lesbian? You say that they can change and they should go through some sort of therapy programme. I tried that and I know well over 1,500 people who tried that. It almost destroyed our faith and our lives. That's not good pastoral care. So if we want people to be healthy and well, how can we respond? What is appropriate pastoral care. And how can we be good neighbours?

Even if you don't like your neighbour or agree with who they are partnered with, how can you be a good neighbour? Because that's really all your responsibility is. Your responsibility is not to sort everybody else out. Really it is about being a neighbour and not about judging and changing other people.

And that even works the other way. That's for me too. I mean, I can't change my neighbour. I may not agree with their political and moral stance on things, but how can I be a good neighbour to that person?

What about Christians who still feel homosexuality is a sin but who would treat it as just another sin? Is a welcome and 'good neighbourliness' from them positive or patronising?

It's dishonest. I was at a church convention in the UK where various Christian groups had tables set up, and I talked to a youth group that did programmes in the UK and I said: I've got a lesbian within my youth group who's interested in your organisation. Would she be welcome? "Yes, of course she'd be welcome," they said. Yes, but what I think I'm actually asking is if she really liked your organisation, and she wanted to serve in a leadership capacity, could she? And then suddenly they were like: "Well no, because we see Scripture differently." And then I said: oh, so it's not a safe place for her. So I need to tell her she's really not welcome there. She would be a second-class citizen.

And what needs to happen is people need to be called out on what they're really saying. Because they hide behind this nice polite language. They distance themselves from the ugly people who are saying terrible, horrible things about gays because they will never say that, but basically they are saying we are less than human and we're second-class citizens. And that is unacceptable.

What's unacceptable about it is you're being dishonest and you're being homophobic. Because if you say, "we're stuck on this because of the Bible," then you need to stick with all the things that are in the Bible and not just pick and choose. Paul says all kinds of things that people don't adhere to about women's heads being covered and being silent in church and all kinds of stuff. If you were someone who said, "I have to follow the Bible," and you did all that stuff, then that's fine. It's unfortunate you're stuck there, but you're not homophobic. But if this is the issue you're stuck on, don't be blaming the Bible for your own intolerance and bias. Because it's not the Bible. It's you.

Why are you performing at Greenbelt festival?

Because it's like a Christian Narnia, where I don't mind going into the closet to get there. (Laughs)

It's funny, I find that British audiences appreciate my stuff really well. They seem to get my humour. Not to disparage my American audiences, but sometimes my humour is too subtle and they're not informed enough to get all the jokes. So I have found that the two times I have been out to Greenbelt the audience has been very responsive. The last time I was there was in '06 and I shared a little bit from the transgender Bible stuff I was just beginning to work it out and it was wildly accepted. So I'm so thrilled to be able to do the whole production, which I think will be such an eye-opener for people. I feel like I have this gift that I can bring that will literally change people's way of looking at the Bible. I don't say that lightly, but I just know that people will never see certain stories ever the same way again.

I'm just excited about showing people some new stuff that really is good news. I think people are really hungry for good news. They're so tired of all of this ugly, negative, ranting that goes on in the world. And I'm tired of defensive theology, where I have to defend my very existence. So I'm sort of leaving that off and doing much more progressive and proactive theology.


Peterson Toscano will be at Greenbelt festival in August 2012.
This interview also appears at the Narnian Socialist Review.